By Dylan Manfre
“Welcome to the MAAC [Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference].”
Those were the words Head Coach Lynn Milligan used to sum up the fourth quarter of the women’s basketball team’s conference opener against Niagara.
Senior guard Stella Johnson ended a woeful first half 1-for-8 from the field with two points. She needed 30 points in the game to break the program’s all-time scoring record.
After her less-than-stellar first half, the odds of her tying the record were bleak. As Johnson has proved this season, her scoring outbursts can come fast and furious.
Johnson is the nation’s leading scorer at 28.4 points per game and she finished the second half with 29 points to erase Rider’s nine-point halftime deficit.
A spinning layup from Johnson with a minute left in regulation brought her scoring total to 28 and gave the Broncs a two-point advantage.
Two free throws later came points 29 and 30.
And with eight seconds left in the game, Johnson knocked down 1-of-2 free throws and tied Debbie Snyder’s (1991-1994) record of 1,706 points, giving Rider a 79-75 victory in its MAAC opener.
It capped an 18-point fourth quarter for her.
Postgame, Johnson was unaware that she was closing in on the milestone.
“Tie what? What record?” she said puzzled.
“The all-time scoring record,” a reporter said.
Johnson has experienced slow first-half starts before in her 106 career games. She attributed her experience in those situations for her ability to turn a game to forget into a game to remember.
“I think I was just missing shots in the first half,” Johnson said. “Coach Steve [Harney] came up to me and said, ‘Keep going to the rim — that’s when you get your flow.’ I used to be frantic on the court but now I just take a breath.”
The advice worked as she was able to finish the game shooting 50% from the field making 10-of-20 shots.
“In tight games it’s not a secret who’s getting the ball,” Milligan said. “Try and stop her.”
Johnson will have an opportunity to officially break the record in the team’s next game against Iona on Jan. 4.
“Coming in as a freshman I didn’t think I would do any of this — I just came in to win,” Johnson said. “It’s an honor to tie the record but it’s still early in the season.”
Rider seemed to have found its flow as well in the second half, scoring 49 points on 72% shooting from the field.
Sophomore guard Amanda Mobley hit a clutch 3-pointer, as she finished with 13 points and dished out a career-high nine assists. Her bucket with just over three minutes left gave the Broncs a 66-65 lead when they needed it most.
On paper, it would seem the two programs had an even first half. Both had six second-chance points and Niagara made one-more field goal than Rider did (16-for-35 compared to 15-for-36).
Rider’s perimeter defense was the main culprit for the halftime deficit. The Purple Eagles had four different players hit from behind the arc.
Milligan said the contest was a perfect example of just how gritty conference play can be.
“I know I say it all the time — we’re an underrated conference with great players and great coaches and everybody wants to win. You saw two of the best guards in the league tonight put on a show. Whether you finish nonconference play 7-2 or 2-7 or 3-4 it doesn’t matter, everybody is starting on a level playing field and the teams that work really hard, continue to grow will come out on top,” said Milligan.
Milligan credited the Broncs’ experienced roster with helping close the game out in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been down quite a few games this year but this group doesn’t panic,” said Milligan. “They stick together. There’s not a nervousness, there isn’t any of that going around. They hold each other accountable, look at each other in the eye and move on to the next play. If you’re that type of team you can find ways to withstand runs and find ways to win.”
It’s like Milligan said: “Welcome to the MAAC.”
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